Hijacking the Palestinian narrative: Israel’s friends in Congress

UNRWA sugar distribution in Nablus, October 2003. (Zeina Mogarbel-Vallès)

Israel’s hard-line supporters in the US Congress have fired the latest volley in their sustained campaign against the rights of Palestinian refugees and against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that provides for their basic needs.

On 28 October, members of the US House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican from Florida), Jerrold Nadler (Democrat from New York), and Frank Pallone (Democrat from New Jersey), introduced House Resolution 311, “expressing the sense of Congress that the international community should recognize the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”

It also requested that the UNRWA should resettle Palestinian refugees in their current host countries. Ros-Lehtinen was one of the lead sponsors of the recently passed Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act.

Sponsors of HR 311, (L-R): Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, Florida), Jerrold Nadler (Democrat, New York), and Frank Pallone (Democrat, New Jersey).

The new resolution claims “there is evidence that UNRWA facilities have been used for terrorist recruitment and training, as well as bases for terrorist operations, with little attempt by UNRWA to prevent attacks or alert relevant law enforcement authorities about terrorist attacks.”

The resolution also demanded: “UNRWA should immediately replace textbooks and educational materials used in the UNRWA educational system that promote anti-Semitism, deny the existence and the right to exist of the state of Israel, and exacerbate stereotypes and tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.”

While UNRWA has no mandate whatsoever to resettle refugees, the unsubstantiated charges linking it with “terrorism” and “incitement” have become a staple of the escalating campaign in the US against the agency. The United States is UNRWA’s largest donor, contributing a third of its annual budget.

A classroom in an UNRWA girls’ school, West Bank, November 2002 (Steve Sabella)

Israel’s congressional allies last year succeeded in attaching a requirement to Washington’s contribution for the 2003 fiscal year, that the General Accounting Office (GAO) carry out an audit of UNRWA. The audit, according to the law, must ensure that the US provides no aid to the agency, “except on the condition that UNRWA take all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla-type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”

A GAO staffperson responsible for the audit confirmed to me that his agency’s team had already returned from a field visit to Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Jordan, and was preparing to report formally to Congress within a few weeks. When asked why he thought Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues had introduced their resolution now, rather than after the release of the congressionally-mandated GAO report, the official said that although the GAO is the investigative arm of Congress, “our work operates independently of that resolution.”

Brett Heimov, Jerrold Nadler’s chief of staff, explained to me why the congressional resolution could not wait: “Congressman Nadler doesn’t need to see a GAO audit to know the situation in the camps is dire… waiting for a GAO audit is pointless.” When asked if Nadler had ever actually visited a Palestinian refugee camp himself, Heimov said he had not. Heimov said Nadler relied for his information principally on “various news reports” and reports from “various organizations.”

Website of The Forward magazine.

Who might these organizations be? The influential American Jewish weekly, Forward, reported in its 7 November issue: “The main driving force behind the campaign to link the two groups of Middle East refugees (Arab Jews and Palestinians) is the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and its secretary-general, Avi Beker. Shortly after taking over the reins of the organization a year ago, Beker started a campaign against UNRWA. This year he linked that issue to a push for the recognition of Jewish refugees’ plight.”

Forward also quoted a “congressional source” claiming that Beker’s efforts were primarily responsible for the resolution introduced by Ros-Lehtinen, Nadler and Pallone.

The congressional campaign also appears to be coordinated with the Israeli government. Forward reported that “Israeli diplomats opened a second front against UNRWA this week in New York, formally charging that the refugee agency has become a political advocate for the Palestinian cause and that it has allowed its facilities to be used by terrorists.”

UNRWA’s Peter Hansen

Responding to the charges, Peter Hansen, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, told Forward: “We have asked Israel to give us the evidence, and they haven’t done so.”

While attacking UNRWA and demanding “resettlement” of Palestinian refugees is one half of the campaign, the claims about “Jewish refugees” are equally prominent. House Resolution 311 asserts that “during the time period surrounding the creation of the State of Israel, nearly 900,000 of these Jews fled Arab countries because they feared a campaign of ethnic cleansing and were forced to leave behind land, private homes, personal affects (sic), businesses, community assets and thousands of years of their Jewish heritage and history.” Nadler told Forward that he viewed the departure of Jews and Palestinians from their respective homelands as a “population exchange.”

Last January, Israeli scholar Ran HaCohen observed that counterclaims about “the so-called ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Arab countries” seem to be the “Pavlovian pro-Israeli reply whenever the ethnic cleansing (of Palestinians) of 1948 is mentioned.” HaCohen acknowledged that although hundreds of thousands of Jews did eventually leave Arab countries, this occurred after Palestinians were expelled, so “it is therefore somewhat awkward to claim that Israel had deported its Arabs because of the exodus of Arab Jews that occurred years later.”

HaCohen added that while many Jews were indeed harassed into leaving Arab countries, “blaming the Arabs (for) ethnic cleansing is shamefully cynical when it is imputed by the very Zionists who demanded ‘let my people go,’ or by the same Israel that did all it could to force those very countries to let their Jews leave.”

In other words, HaCohen implied, both the destruction of Palestinian society in Palestine and Jewish societies in Arab countries were necessary conditions for the fulfillment of the Zionist project. For years Israel’s supporters welcomed the departure of Arab Jews from their homelands to Israel. Their exodus has only now become a “plight” to the extent that it is useful for propaganda purposes or to offset Palestinian rights to compensation and return. Because there is no groundswell among Arab Jews in Israel to exercise their own undeniable right to return and compensation, certain Zionist advocates have used them as a weapon to demand that Palestinians be similarly satisfied through resettlement outside their homeland. Having been unable to suppress the Palestinian narrative of dispossession, these supporters of Israel are now apparently trying to appropriate it for themselves.

According to Forward, other Israeli commentators are not pleased by this rewriting of official Zionism, and “have criticized the WJC campaign to have Jews from Arab lands recognized as refugees, arguing it undercuts the Zionist claim that Jewish immigrants to Israel were not homeless refugees but returnees to the Jewish homeland.”

It is not yet clear when the new House resolution will come to a vote. But judging from the success the resolution’s backers have had so far in advancing their cause in Congress, the debate will be little affected by actual evidence, be it from the GAO or other credible or objective sources. This is never truer than during an election year.

This article was written for The Daily Star where it was first published on 8 November 2003